If only Covid-19 was the lone wellness worry for Western New Yorkers.
Half of the eight counties in Western New York – including Erie and Niagara – continue to sit in the bottom 10 counties across the state when it comes to health outcomes.
What’s more, people across the region tend to live at least 2½ years less than the typical New Yorker.
These are among the findings released last week in the annual County Health Rankings report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
The healthiest county in the western region is Wyoming, which ranked 18th out of 62 counties, climbing from No. 24 in last year’s rankings.
Erie County, which placed No. 56 for the second straight year, hasn’t cracked the top 50 in more than a decade.
“Despite Herculean efforts by a lot of good people, we’ve got to rethink what we’re doing here. We’re not getting the outcomes,” said Phil Haberstro, executive director of the Wellness Institute of Greater Buffalo.
The institute looks to help address the woeful showing with a Healthy Communities 2030! initiative. The public health policy veteran also knows that civic, business and individual muscle also will need to shoulder the effort and he wondered this week if Covid-19 will serve as part of the wake-up call. Western New York is considered the unhealthiest region in the state, while the wealthy suburban counties around New York City rank as the healthiest.
Compared to the national benchmarks, a lower percentage of adult state residents smoke (14% versus 17%), are obese (26% versus 29%, both slightly higher than last year) and have babies as teens (15 versus 23 births per 1,000 females ages 15-19).
The physical inactivity rate is higher statewide than nationally, (25% versus 23%, even though fitness options are more plentiful), as well as the rate of sexually transmitted disease (588.5 versus 524.6 per 100,000, both higher than last year) and the percentage of children in poverty (19% versus 18%).
Lower performing counties do considerably worse than national averages – and the average health of blacks is generally worse than the overall populations of lower performing counties, the rankings showed.
All eight Western New York counties fall below the average statewide length of life, age 81.3.
Wyoming and Erie counties have the highest longevity rates – at 78.7 and 78.4, respectively – while Chautauqua has the lowest at 77.3, followed by Niagara and Orleans, each at 77.7.
The average life expectancy in Erie County is nearly three years less than statewide. For blacks in the county, life expectancy is 73.6, nearly eight years less than the overall state average and nearly five years less than the average county resident. Hispanic life expectancy in the county is 83.6, Asian-American life expectancy is 89, and for whites, it’s 79.
The national rankings come from data collected from a variety of sources, mostly covering the years 2017 and 2018. Researchers measure longevity, low birth weight, child and infant mortality, mental distress, diabetes and HIV infection rates when considering health outcomes.
They also consider factors that include tobacco use, obesity, excessive drinking, physical inactivity, access to exercise, sexually transmitted diseases, teen births and child mortality.
Income inequality, children in poverty and educational status are also weighed, as well as the availability of primary care doctors and dentists, effectiveness of diabetes monitoring and mammography screenings and preventable hospital stays.
The adult smoking rate in Erie County is 17%, three percentage points higher than the state average. The 30% adult obesity rate is four percentage points higher than statewide – but three to eight percentage points lower than every other county in the region, with Chautauqua closest behind.
Smoking rates in Genesee and Wyoming counties are lowest in smoking rates at 16%, while all others stand at 17%. That is considerably better for Chautauqua and Cattaraugus, which had rates last year at 24% and 23%, respectively. Cattaraugus, Orleans and Wyoming counties have the highest obesity rates, at 38%, all slightly higher than their rates last year.
The 4% rate of those uninsured in Erie County stands at 3% lower than statewide. The rate for preventative hospital stays, however, is 3,944 per 100,000 Medicare enrollees, nearly 1,200 patients higher than the state average.
Public health policy experts, including those with the Commonwealth Fund, have begun to think about how the Covid-19 pandemic may reshape health and wellness going forward, Haberstro said.
“They’re asking the question of will this crisis bring about transformation of the health system into one that produces health,” he said. “That remains to be answered at this point in time, but it’s clearly something we all have to be thinking about in the long term.
“When I talk to college students in the health field, I talk with them about understanding our democracy to create healthy communities. The hidden benefit of a healthy democracy is a healthy community population.”
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